Elizabeth Koh is a company that creates beautiful scarves that can liven up any outfit, but there is more than meets the eye with this company. After winning Photobucket’s “Life’s an Adventure” contest, founder Janelle Sisting decided that her good fortune could do so much more if she put her mind to it.
Read on to learn about Janelle Sisting’s inspiring story and where you can find some beautiful scarves for yourself, while also giving back to communities in need!
Photobucket: What was the initial event that got you thinking about creating such a life-changing company?
Janelle: The initial event that got me thinking about creating Elizabeth Koh was when I visited Thailand in 2010. During my trip I experienced the incredible Thai artisan culture, and witnessed hundreds of children living in poverty. For months after I got back, I dreamt of working in Thailand, while benefitting the artisans and children there. The problem was, I didn’t really think it was possible. I had no previous business experience, and the whole idea seemed really difficult- how would I communicate if I didn’t speak Thai? What about shipping and customs? There was always something that stood in the way, and kept me on my same path.
In 2012 I was able to travel again, through parts of Asia and Latin America. After that, I went back to my old job, back to my old house, and back to the life I had created before traveling. The problem was that I was different. I had changed, and my old lifestyle no longer satisfied me. I was frustrated, uninspired, and I didn’t have a plan. I wanted to keep traveling and helping others, but I couldn’t find a job that would allow me to do this.
A few weeks after my return I got an email and saw that Photobucket was sponsoring a contest called “Life is an Adventure”. After spending 2012 in a hospital in India, participating in a soap opera in Colombia and getting mugged around the world, I knew that my life fit that category.
I told a friend who had traveled with me about the contest and asked for her help. “How can you ever hope to win,” she replied, “do you know how many other people will enter? Thousands. Good Luck.”
I started my entry, and enjoyed every moment reliving and recounting the stories of my adventures. I put my heart and soul into my story, and pulled all the pictures I could find to include. I told my friends and family that I was going to win the contest, and really believed in my heart that I would. I got an email a few weeks after submitting my entry that explained I was a runner up in the contest.
I was ecstatic! For me, this had been more than a contest, but about realizing that if I went for something I was passionate about, I could beat the odds. It may sound funny, but after the contest I really believed I could do anything. Suddenly, I began dreaming again, and what seemed like obstacles before, began to seem like opportunities.
I won the contest 45 days before I was going on vacation to Thailand. As a runner up I received $500 in prize money, and thought the timing was meant to be: I decided to put every dime of that money toward my dream and start a business in Thailand. I spoke to my friend Megan who was joining me on the trip, and she was excited about the idea. We decided to start a company that was dedicated to providing artisans with fair employment and donating back to improve the communities where our products were made. We began our search for artisans, products, and organizations that we felt fit with our philosophy. The obstacles that kept me from starting this business in 2010 no longer seemed so daunting. I believed I could do it, and that’s exactly what I did.
PB: How did you meet the team of women that help created your beautiful scarves?
Janelle: We spent our trip in February searching for organizations in Thailand to give back to. After meeting with many organizations we chose SOS Children’s Villages as our official partner. However, there were other organizations that we wanted to help too. Before our next trip in October, we [held] a fundraiser to raise medical supplies for another organization that had touched my heart, Rajavithi Home for Girls.
We raised over 100 pounds of medical supplies and shortly after realized that all of the names and directions were in English- and we didn’t have a translator for the supplies! I asked some friends at work for advice, and my co-worker introduced me to their friend Eddie. Eddie is Thai, and was going to be in Thailand visiting family while we were there. He offered to help us translate the supplies and we met him in Bangkok. He ended up traveling with us for the next few weeks, and introduced us to his Uncle who lives in Thailand. His uncle introduced us to his aunt, then his cousin, who took us to the women in the village. So I like to say it was a little bit of good karma that took us to the women!
PB: You seem to be in the business of good karma! You work closely with SOS Children’s Villages to provide shelter and education to children in Thailand, which is inspiring. Tell us more about how EK gives back and impacts the world in a positive way.
Janelle: Elizabeth Koh is committed to giving back to the world. In addition to providing our artisans with fair employment, we donate 10% of our profits to SOS Children’s Villages in Thailand. We visit the village in Bangpoo, Thailand on each trip and will be visiting them again during our trip in January. We chose SOS Children’s Villages as our official partner because of how well the children are taken care of there. SOS believes in the importance of raising children together as a family. In each village 10-12 children live together in one home, and become brothers and sisters. They have a mother in the home who lives there 24/7, and becomes their mother for life. This idea of creating a family environment for the children really struck my heart.
In addition to giving back to Thailand, we also give back to various organizations in our community. We are working with the Soroptimist Club to sponsor scholarships for high school students locally, and also donate to Alliance for the Arts.
PB: In the past year alone, EK has donated over 100,000 THB (Thai baht) to various charities. What are your plans for giving back in the future?
Janelle: We plan to visit SOS Children’s Villages in January to make our donation, and will continue to support the organization. Our goal is to donate over 300,000 THB (Thai baht) in 2015, and to sponsor other organizations that do good in the world. We also plan to expand our business from scarves to other accessories, clothing, and beyond. We would like to find new ways to give back to other organizations and communities through this growth. Seeing the philanthropic success that companies like TOMS have achieved is an inspiration and reminder that there are so many people in the world who need help. We strive to grow our company in order to also broaden our financial and geographical limits of giving back, until there are none.
Follow our trip to Thailand on Facebook to watch the design and production process of our 2015 spring and summer collections, and of course share the adventures we have along the way!
PB: We will definitely check that out! As someone who did what most of us are scared to and followed your dreams without fear, what can you share as some advice for anyone on the fence about pursuing something a bit terrifying?
Janelle: In December 2012, I entered the Photobucket contest. Two years later, in December 2014, I can say that this contest changed my life. It made me realize that anything is possible if I put my mind to it. Literally, anything. I am going back to Thailand on December 28th, for the 5th time since I started this business. My dreams of helping others, using my creative skills and traveling have come true. However, they came true because I pursued them and I didn’t give up when the times got tough-I made them come true. Don’t wait for someone else to make your dreams come true, you have to go out and create the life you always dreamed of. Believe in yourself, have confidence that you can succeed, and take opportunities when they present themselves.
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